A Tribute to Peter Tennant

It was with deep sadness that colleagues, friends, and former students in Classics on the Pietermaritzburg campus of UKZN, learned of the death of Professor Peter Tennant on the 20th January 2023.

A quintessential Maritzburger, Professor Tennant was schooled at Merchiston and Maritzburg College and obtained his MA and PHD in Classics at the University of Natal, and a Senior Teachers’ Diploma at the University of Cape Town. Professor Magnus Henderson of the Department of Classics in Pietermaritzburg supervised his Masters thesis on the mythology of early Rome and Professor William Dominik of the Classics Department in Durban his doctorate on Roman Satire.

A stellar teaching career at Kearsney (1969-1980) and Maritzburg College (1981-1987) honed his skills as a passionate, witty and creative Latin teacher which endeared him to his students, both at school and university. For Peter teaching was not a salaried job, but a vocation, dedicated to preserving the language and discipline he loved. He pioneered the teaching of the Cambridge Latin Course in Natal schools in the 1970s and contributed, with enviable zeal, to workshops for Matric Latin teachers, to Latin school competitions, and to the Natal branch of the Classical Association of South Africa. When I was a fledgling Latin teacher at Epworth in the 1970s, I recall Peter’s visit to the school with a legion of ‘Latin boys’ who had been invited by the ‘Latin girls’ to a Roman dinner, loosely based on the recipes of Apicius which featured, inter alia, grilled dormice in honey. Such a delicacy, like many other things, has not survived the 1970s!

Peter’s desire to make Latin a living language and to make the culture, in which the language is embedded, resonate with South African students was the defining characteristic of his career in the Department of Classics at UNP and in the School of Religion, Philosophy and Classics at UKZN (1987-2009), where he was eventually Head of Classics (2007-2009). When the future of Latin both at secondary and tertiary levels seemed uncertain, Peter, ever interested in curriculum development, focused on topics as varied as the Minoans and the Mycenaeans, ancient Greek sculpture, the Olympic Games, and the etymology of English words derived from Greek and Latin roots.

He was much in demand as a speaker at schools in Pietermaritzburg and the Midlands and he contributed enthusiastically to Adult Extension lectures on the Pietermaritzburg campus, especially when preparatory lectures were required for departmental tours to Greece and Turkey. I have edited two collections of these talks which were published by the Classical Association of South Africa as possible setworks for Classical Civilization in secondary schools: Peter’s contributions range from ‘Santorini (Thera): the end of Atlantis?’ to ‘Roman dinners’.

Roman dinners were enmeshed in endless chains of patronage (rather like ESKOM), which made these dinners ideal subject matter for satirists (the Trevor Noahs of antiquity), who wanted to expose the social and economic ills of the society which shaped and perpetrated the divisive cena (the dinner). Peter was particularly interested in the satirical works, and distinctive voices, of two Roman authors, Horace and Juvenal: most of his research work, published in South African and international journals, focused on Juvenal, who critiqued contemporary Roman mores with an invective which bordered on the savage. Most satirists, both ancient and modern, use exaggeration and adopt various personae: ever suspicious of the application of modern literary theories to ancient literature, Peter sought to demonstrate that Juvenal’s exaggeration was grounded not in the mendacious posturing of fictional personae, but in the realities of the poet’s lived experiences in imperial Rome. Always sensitive to South African realities and the relationship between satirical literature, drama and ‘real life’, Peter initiated many interesting conversations between contemporary South Africa and imperial Rome. One has only to walk into the centre of Pietermaritzburg today to appreciate Juvenal’s rage in his Third Satire. More Horatian than Juvenalian, Peter’s twinkle-eyed wit delighted in the aspiring Latinist who embellished the Old Arts Block toilets with some learned graffiti in which he altered Juvenal’s much-quoted ‘facit indignatio versum’ (‘indignation creates my poetry’) to ‘facit constipatio versum’ (no translation required).

Peter’s talents were not confined to classical languages and ancient cultures. He was an accomplished musician and both played and taught the classical guitar. He gave a number of public recitals and enjoyed accompanying the departmental performances of Greek and Latin verse in the original languages at UKZN, at arts festivals and at UCT during a national Classics conference: I once joined him, at a formal dinner in Denison Residence, for a rendition of scurrilous 17th century pub songs culled from “Pills to Purge Melancholy”. The performance was greeted by stony silence.

Rather like an ancient Greek for whom mousikē included education in literature, language, music and athletics, Peter’s prowess also encompassed the latter. Much to the awe of those of us who watched our waistlines balloon with the passing of the years, Peter retained his youthful physique by playing squash and by completing eighteen Comrades Marathons, thus surpassing the legendary Pheidippides, who ran from Athens to Sparta in what was his first and only ‘marathon’. Habitués of the Staff Common Room in the New Arts Block used to look forward to his satirical accounts of conversations en route.

Peter Tennant was a much-loved and highly valued member of the academic community at UNP and UKZN who leaves his wife, Mary-lynne, his daughter, Lucy, his son, Geoff, their partners, Glen and Heidi, and four grandchildren, Katherine, Thomas, Emily and Victoria.

Our lives are impoverished by his untimely death.

Michael Lambert (Classics UNP, UKZN, 1980-2012)
02 February 2023